A Potter's Dilemma
BY Eric Mindling | December 3, 2009
Two hundred generations of making pots. Two generations of the old ways no longer mattering. What is a potter to do?
Creating pots runs in her blood. The pots that come from the clay on the edge of the village, the pots that have always been used here, the pots that are sold to all the surrounding villages through trade at the Sunday market. The pots that work well: round bottomed to sit on three hearthstones evenly, spreading the heat of the fire. Stone burnished for strength and beauty. Narrow necked to contain the splashes of liquid. Curved lip to pour cleanly. The pots that she makes in the shady room off the courtyard, close to where she cooks tortillas, close to where she nurses the children, close to the sisters and aunts who are also potters and mothers and wives. The pots, ochre red from a fine clay finish dug on the hillside and marked with black and silver birthmarks where the oak wood of the firing touched the surface of the clay.
They are not plastic pink or baby blue. They do not have metal handles. They are not airplane-light aluminum. They do not clang and bounce when accidentally dropped like a tin pan.
But for two generations, plastic buckets, aluminum jugs and tin pans have spread to all the villages in exchange for cash at the Sunday market. Now brothers and uncles and fathers leave the corn and agave fields and slip across the northern border to find cash work in concrete cities where a foreign language is spoken. And potters make pots that no one buys anymore because they aren’t pink or blue.
What does she do? The question forces itself into the shady room off the courtyard, what do I do? All the potters around her are looking for an answer from the soil, from the deep roots where things come from, the source that has always nourished them. The answer seems to be: If you have made pots in a certain way for 200 generations, then that is how pots should be made. And so their pottery stays the same as the world around them changes. But everything, including their pottery, changes.
Who is she, this daughter of daughters who has learned her art from her mother before? In San Marcos she is one of hundreds of potters. In Oaxaca she is one of thousands, in Mexico one of hundreds of thousands. Her name is Macrina Mateo Martinez. Like everyone else she inherited a trade making pots that no longer sell, but she had mouths to feed. In 1985 a design workshop was offered in the village. Many potters went for the stipend that was offered to compensate for their time. When it was over almost all of the potters went back to making pottery the way they always had.
But Macrina went home and tried some of the new shapes. She then tried selling them at the market, and more importantly, in new places, like cultural fairs and festival markets in the nearby city of Oaxaca where middle class Mexicans and tourists didn’t need a pot to sit on three hearth stones or pour chocolate from its contoured rim. They were looking for something else, and Macrina paid attention.
“The other potters in the village used to laugh at me. ‘You’ll never sell those silly pots’ they told!” Change is not taken lightly. That was 20 years ago and during that time Macrina shared her ideas with the ten households of her extended family. The new pottery began to sell well. And then it began to sell even better.
The other potters of the village could not help but take note. They are traditional. They are rooted. And they are no fools. There came a certain point, when Macrina and her family had been selling pottery long enough to show even the most stubborn that a new path was opening up. In San Marcos the pottery has begun to sell again, and even the soil might answer differently if asked how to make pottery.
Macrina Mateo Martinez and her family can usually be found in their workshops in San Marcos Tlapazola. The town is found in the Tlacolula valley, about 40 minutes from Oaxaca city. Her house is on the dusty main street of this traditional Zapotec village, about 300 yards from the church. You can’t miss it, it has a huge pink door and a little sign that says, “Mujeres de Barro Rojo”. For more information, or to arrange a visit, see authorand guide Eric Mindling’s travel site, traditionsmexico.com.